What is the Proper Role of General Managers in Private Clubs?

I’m probably going out on a limb with this blog, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what is the proper role for a club General Manager.  I recognize that there is no single right answer to this question, that it depends to a great deal on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual, the size and organization of the club, as well as the desires and direction of the club’s board.  Nevertheless, here’s my stab at it along with my rationale.

General Managers of private clubs wear a lot of hats and tend to be involved in a large number of ongoing day-to-day operational activities and issues.  This involvement seems to flow from various organizational deficiencies:

  • Some department heads need a lot of guidance to properly run their departments. The GM must get involved because a subordinate manager created problems. This is usually a direct result of poor training and leadership development.
  • The organization of work at clubs is inadequate or inefficient, requiring frequent GM interventions. This is a result of a lack of or inadequately implemented operating systems and training of subordinate managers.
  • The GM gets involved in responding to complaints about poor member service. This is usually a result of inadequate staff training for which the department heads are responsible.
  • The GM does not have sufficient reporting mechanisms to monitor the performance of the club departments. This masks problems that arise and grow undetected, eventually blowing up, and ultimately requiring time-consuming GM intervention and involvement. If the GM is only using the monthly operating statement to monitor performance, he is flying blind to the details of his operation and does not have real-time information upon which to take action and base decisions. A properly implemented system of departmental benchmarks and reports would help with this problem.
  • The difficulty of holding department heads accountable for the performance of their departments, which leads to toleration of weak department heads and poor performing departments. Without work plans with measurable accountabilities and benchmarks any attempt to hold subordinates accountable is dependent upon weak and subjective evaluations.

The miring of General Managers in day-to-day operational problems prevents them from engaging their key strategic responsibilities.

The following is my list of the strategic requirements of a club General Manager:

1.       In conjunction with the club Board of Directors, establishing the club culture, mission, vision, guiding principles and operating standards of the club.

2.       Establishing a strategic plan to accomplish the same.

3.       Providing the Board with timely and accurate information and routine reports to help them fulfill their requirements to oversee the operation.

4.       Managing member perceptions by maintaining a visible presence in the operation and communicating frequently and thoroughly with the membership.

5.       Maximizing membership sales by ensuring that a “stretch” marketing plan is developed and that the Membership Sales Director provides ongoing reports detailing efforts to generate leads, qualify prospects, and close membership sales.

6.       Establishing and ensuring compliance with club operating standards, policies, and procedures (the operations plan).

7.       Providing ongoing strategic thinking, planning, and decision making.

8.       Implementing and maintaining a discipline of thorough planning and continual process improvement.

9.       Establishing annual operating and capital budgets to guide the financial performance of the club.

10.   Establishing and ensuring implementation or execution of club culture, club annual plan, annual operating and capital budgets, and department head work plans.

11.   Establishing monthly review of departmental operating performance, ongoing departmental benchmarks, Tools to Beat Budget, and other indicators of operating performance.

12.   Monitoring and establishing accountability for operating performance of all departments.

13.   Establishing consistent club-wide leadership and professional development of department heads and supervisors to include:

a.       Training (leadership development, club culture, legal compliance issues [sexual harassment, appropriate interview questions, disciplinary procedures, etc.], liability abatement issues [safety, food sanitation, hazardous material handling, responsible alcohol service, etc.], and club organizational issues).

b.       Work planning by developing meaningful goals, work plans, and objective measures of performance.

c.       Mentoring of key subordinates to take on some of the GM’s duties.

d.       Monitoring performance using Tools to Beat Budget and monthly benchmarks and reports from subordinates.

e.       Conducting meaningful reviews tied to work plan accomplishment and operational performance.

f.        Establishing accountability based upon meeting work plans and performance goals.

14.   Establishing and ensuring staff development to include:

a.       Initial training in club culture, liability abatement issues, and position skills training.

b.       Ongoing training in same.

c.       Employee empowerment.

15.   Establishing and maintaining the means to continually communicate with constituencies.

16.   Ensuring department heads topgrade talent by using Disciplined Hiring and Screen for Success when recruiting, screening, and hiring.

17.   Ensuring appropriate internal controls.

18.   Ensuring the cleanliness, upkeep, and maintenance of all club facilities, grounds, furniture, fixtures, and equipment.

19.   Ensuring a safe operation for employees and members.

20.   Ensuring the club’s legal compliance with all aspects of federal, state, and local laws such as FLSA, FMLA, ADA, EEOC, youth employment, alcohol laws, food sanitation, etc.

21.   Establishing and maintaining a continually fresh and robust schedule of activity programming for members of all ages and interests.

22.   Ongoing professional self-development per self-developed work plan presented to and approved by the club Board of Directors.

As can be seen from the foregoing list of requirements, a club General Manager has much to do – primarily in guiding the direction, quality, and performance of the club.  Given the scope of these large responsibilities, GMs cannot afford to be bogged down in the day-to-day details of the operation – this detail is the job of individual department heads.

Though it is often a challenging and time-consuming process to organize the operation, train subordinate managers to fulfill their responsibilities, and maintain the high standards to which all clubs aspire, ultimately the time spent developing managers and establishing the disciplines of a well-run club are worth the effort.  No General Manager can do it all and must depend upon subordinate managers to do their jobs properly to give him or her time to focus on strategic issues.

Jim Collins, in his groundbreaking book Good to Great:  Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don’t, identified the critical success factors of great companies.  One of those factors was the need for “disciplined people taking disciplined action.”  In other words, the entire management staff must understand the full requirements of their positions and execute them in a disciplined way – that is, routinely and without being told.  Only then can the chief executive focus on the long term health and direction of the company.  While Collins’ book addressed large publicly traded companies, I’m convinced the same principles apply just as much in the challenging world of private club management.

Having put my thoughts out there, I’m anxious to hear other opinions.  Post a comment or send your thoughts to ed@myclubresource.com.

Thanks and have a great day!

Ed Rehkopf

This weekly blog comments on and discusses the club industry and its challenges. From time to time, we will feature guest bloggers — those managers and industry experts who have something of interest to say to all of us. We also welcome feedback and comment upon the blog, hoping that it will become a useful sounding board for what’s on the minds of hardworking club managers throughout the country and around the world.

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